Science On Screen, From Old to New

16:23 minutes

Science has a long history in the cinema. This week, we learn just how long. Film scholar Oliver Gaycken reveals that the first science documentaries date back almost as far as the birth of cinema itself. Hit films like “Cheese Mites” and “The Birth of a Flower” showed early film buffs the microscopic life teeming in their food, and unveiled the mysteries of plant growth (using a powerful new technique called “speed magnification”—i.e., time-lapse). Together, these and other early reels helped shape the tradition of science documentary that continues today.

[The giant squid’s biggest mystery.]

Plus, Ira speaks with the directors behind a new documentary which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. Uncertain weaves the tale of an invasive species into an intimate portrait of a tiny Texas town.

Cheese Mites (1903)


The Acrobatic Fly (1910)


Excerpts from The Birth of a Flower

Segment Guests

Oliver Gaycken

Oliver Gaychen is author of Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science and an associate professor of film studies at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland.

Ewan McNicol

Ewan McNicol is co-director of Uncertain (Lucid Inc., 2015) and based in Seattle, Washington.

Anna Sandilands

Anna Sandilands is co-director of Uncertain (Lucid Inc., 2015) and based in Seattle, Washington.

Meet the Producer

About Annie Minoff

Annie Minoff is a producer for The Journal from Gimlet Media and the Wall Street Journal, and a former co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She also plays the banjo.

Explore More

The ‘Unbelievable’ Power Of Nuclear Bombs, Caught On Film

Last March, physicists declassified a trove of nuclear test films. Now you can see them for yourself.

Read More